John Peace was spending the day fishing off the coast of Stronsay in the Orkney islands. It was September 25, 1808. He noticed that a number of sea birds were gathering over a strange shape on the rocks. His curiosity peaked, he went to investigate.
Turning his little boat, and watched by another Stronsay man, George Sherar, Peace made his way to the carcass. What he saw was unlike anything else he had seen before. Lying in amongst the rocks were the remains of a strange serpent-like creature. It had a long neck and three pairs of limbs.
The area was pretty inaccessible and people has to wait a full 10 days before the carcass was washed ashore by the notorious Orkney winds.
Sherar was one of the first on the scene and meticulously examined and measured the strange corpse. He ‘monster’ measured exactly 55 feet in length and had a neck measuring 10 feet and 3 inches long. He described the head as looking like that of a sheep with big eyes reminiscent of a seal’s. The grey skin was also mysterious. When stroked from the head down the back, it was as smooth as velvet, but stroking it the other way it felt rough.
It was 4 feet wide and had a circumference of approximately 10 feet, and when they examined the stomach contents, they found it to be red in colour.
As Peace has mentioned, there were three pairs of ‘limbs’ extending from the body and what looked like a bristly mane of long, wiry hair growing from the shoulders to the end of the tail. It is said that these hairs glowed in the dark.
The Orcadian newspaper reported:
“Its flesh was described as being like ‘coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity to fish’. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts.”
Bu the end of September the corpse had pretty much rotted away. Peace, Sherar and two other men who had first seen the creature were taken to the city of Kirkwall to swear before a magistrate that what they reported was the truth.
Natural History Society in Edinburgh got to hear of the incredible find and in November 1808, they named the creature Halsydrus Pontoppidani which means Pontoppidan’s Water Snake of the Sea in honour of an 18th century Norwegian bishop. This bishop had found fame by collecting reports of sea monsters from around the known world.
Some time later, the famous naturalist Sir Everard Home heard of the sea-monster and decided to check it our himself. After seeing what remained of the beast, he concluded that it was merely the carcass of a decomposing basking shark which are fairly common along the Orkney coast. In 1849 the Scot professor Goodsir in Edinburgh also concluded that it was in fact just that large species of shark.
This conclusion is not without its merits. Many times before and since, carcasses have washed up on beaches and been studied. The way the basking shark decays does indeed give a similiar appearance as the Stonsay Beast. But if it was a basking shark body, then it would still be quite fantastic.
The largest basking shark recorded was a mere 40 feet long. This is a full 15 feet shorter than the 55 feet of the Stronsay Beast.
The riddle of the beast may soon be answered. Dr Yvonne Simpson, a geneticist from Orkney, believes that she can identify the beast through its DNA, thanks to a new pioneering technique. She managed to get hold of bone and bristle fragments from a private collection and plans to extract the DNA and compare it to samples in a shark database in Florida.
Dr Simpson will discuss the latest findings at the Orkney International Science Festival next week. She told reporters: “From earlier tests I believe it is either from the shark family or closely related.”
Is the Stronsay Beast just a massive shark, or is it something entirely new? Could it be a new shark species, or a new creature altogether?
We may have some answers to the puzzle soon.